Question: Do the changes in the Book of Mormon Isaiah passages reflect a better translation of the underlying Hebrew?

FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Do the changes in the Book of Mormon Isaiah passages reflect a better translation of the underlying Hebrew?

Introduction to Question

A couple of critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed that the changes to the Book of Mormon Isaiah passages do not reflect a better translation of the underlying Hebrew. The lack of a better translation is taken as evidence that Joseph Smith was just randomly making changes to the Isaiah text and hoping that noone found out that the translation he produced doesn’t reflect a better translation than other Bibles.

This article seeks to outline what we know about what changes were made to the passages and how we can view them in light of the evidence.

Response to Question

The Changes Themselves

Here are the changes to the Isaiah text in the Book of Mormon that we know about that try to make a substantial change to the meaning of the text. These changes are taken from Book of Mormon Reference Companion (2003) edited by Dennis L. Largey.[1]

IsaiahDifferences1.png
IsaiahDifferences2.png
IsaiahDifferences3.png
IsaiahDifferences4.png
IsaiahDifferences5.png
IsaiahDifferences6.png
IsaiahDifferences7.png

The rest of the changes can be found by trowling through Royal Skousen’s Analysis of Textual Variants in the Book of Mormon online.

The vast majority of Book of Mormon changes to Isaiah are on places where italicized text was placed in the King James Bible.[2] Some of these changes do not reflect a better translation of the earliest extant Isaiah source we have today.

The Book of Mormon’s Rendering of Isaiah does not Purport to be the Original Text of Isaiah

It should first be mentioned that the Book of Mormon does not purport to be the original text of Isaiah as composed by Isaiah himself. That is an assumption that readers of the Book of Mormon have brought to the text.

We Do Not Know What the Original Text of Isaiah Was Like

It should next be noted that we do not know what the original text of Isaiah as composed by Isaiah was like. We have early textual witnesses such as the Great Isaiah Scroll (1Qlsa[a]) recovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls, but this is not the original text as composed by Isaiah. We don’t know what the original was like and will likely never know. Thus anyone claiming to know how to judge the Book of Mormon’s rendering of Isaiah based on its fidelity to “the original Hebrew” is acting foolishly and likely tendentiously.

Nephi Likely Changed Wording to Comment on Isaiah

The changes in Isaiah can be thought of to be commentary by Book of Mormon authors. Joseph Spencer at BYU has most persuasively argued that Nephi’s selection and edits of Isaiah are deliberate and that they reflect a coherent theological vision of the scattering and gathering of Israel.[3]

Nephi may have been adding these changes in order to clarify Isaiah’s words, clarify the Lord’s words if Isaiah didn’t communicate them clearly enough, or as Nephi’s independent revelatory (or even non-revelatory) adding to Isaiah based in his then-current theological understanding.

Some of the Changes Do Reflect a Better Translation of the Hebrew

John Tvedtnes has shown that many of the Book of Mormon's translation variants of Isaiah have ancient support.[4]

This throws a huge wrench into any critic's theories that Joseph Smith merely cribbed off of the King James Isaiah.

Conclusion

The Isaiah changes should be no problem for orthodox Latter-day Saints.


Notes

  1. Please forgive blurriness from scanning/transmitting the images.
  2. Stan Spencer, “Missing Words: King James Bible Italics, The Translation of the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith as an Unlearned Reader,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 38 (2020): 45–106.
  3. See Joseph M. Spencer, The Vision of All: 25 Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016). For a good summary, see BMC Team, “What Vision Guides Nephi’s Choice of Isaiah Chapters?” KnoWhy #38 (February 22, 2016).
  4. John A. Tvedtnes, “Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon,” in Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 165–78. A critic, David Wright, responded to John Tvedtnes' chapter there. Tvedtnes responds to Wright in John A. Tvedtnes, "Isaiah in the Bible and the Book of Mormon," The FARMS Review 16, no. 2 (2004): 161–72.